Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This House You Have To Watch Every Minute: The Seen and Unseen In The Haunting films (1963/1999)

When first we glimpse Hill House in Robert Wise's chilling The Haunting (1963), the imposing old structure is a featureless black obelisk: a jagged silhouette carved out from brooding night sky.

Secrets dwell inside Hill House -- in the dark; in the night -- and yet the director's selection of visualization (a shadowed, blackened house with no distinguishable architectural features) purposefully confounds our desire to peer inside this monument to the unknown; to learn about the "unquiet dead" who may walk the lonely, vast hallways of this spectral monolith.

Hill House is a place "born to be bad," according to the film's opening narration, but it is something more than that too: "an undiscovered country waiting to be explored." And The Undiscovered Country, as we remember from our Shakespeare, is Death Itself.

Robert Wise structures his horror film (based on the sterling novel by Shirley Jackson) as a probe into that ultimate unknown; but more than that too, as an ambiguous probe into that unknown. Never in the film, for instance, is the audience 100% certain that it has actually witnessed the supernatural and the ghostly. On the contrary, our senses are heightened and tweaked by disturbing noises, by the sinister-seeming twist of a doorknob, and more. Yet certainty still eludes us; just as certainty about the paranormal eludes people in real life.

You Should Be Receptive...and Innocent: Exploring The Self in The Haunting.

It is no mistake or coincidence that the four explorers countenancing the chaotic, uncertain terrain of Hill House are -- in the spirit of Hugh Crain's strange edifice itself -- a determinedly unconventional group. This is important structurally to the narrative. The sojourners reflect the sojourn.

Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) gave up a "conventional" life and a proper upbringing (courtesy of his upper-crust English family) to prove the existence of the supernatural. This is his life's work, which makes him either commendably dedicated or utterly foolish. He says he wants his people "innocent and receptive" so that they will discover the secrets of Hill House. If someone is innocent and receptive, however, he or she is not looking for the angles that might be played; and every little noise becomes significant and meaningful. So Markway may (intentionally or unintentiaonally...) be encouraging hallucinations or delusions (though he says, explicitly, that this must not be the case if their research is considered to be legitimate).

Theodora (Claire Bloom) also fits the bill of "unconventional." She not only boasts extra-sensory perception, but is "out" as a lesbian. To some people in traditional society in the 1960s the latter quality would make her untrustworthy at best, abnormal at worst. And when strange handwriting appears on the wall of Hill House, Theodora is the first suspect. She's jealous of the attention Markway showers on Nell, and this spooky handwriting (which names Nell...) may be her petty revenge; her game playing. She has a cruel, jealous streak that could effect the exploration of Hill House.

Then there's Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a playboy and would-be millionaire who has a frat-boy sense of humor; but also a burgeoning curiosity and conscience. Is he just a money-grubber, a dabbler, or something more? What's his angle?

And finally, we arrive at the most unconventional of the explorers: Eleanor or Nell (Julie Harris), a spinster who had a poltergeist experience as a child but who, in essence, has never truly left the confines of her home. The sheltered, inexperienced woman has spent years caring for her invalid mother (now deceased...) and the chance to explore Hill House is most definitely an escape from the drudgery of her day-to-day existence. She is motivated to stay at Hill House; to "belong" to the group. We wonder: is Nell's subconscious somehow causing the noises that bedevil Hill House at night (as it caused the rock storm that fell upon her house in childhood?) Or is Nell hallucinating? Or, worst of all: is she so desperate for attention that she is "pretending" all the experiences with the supernatural. When Nell almost falls off a veranda at Hill House, who can adequately judge what caused her to grow dizzy? It is convenient that Markway, the object of her affection, would rush in to her to care for her...

These idiosyncratic individuals -- who don't conform to the boundaries of society-at-large and who don't entirely fit the bill of "normal" or "trustworthy" -- investigate the home of a 19th century robber baron of sorts, Hugh Crain. He too is a kindred spirit: an unconventional person and one who didn't believe in the rules of society. He built his oddball house to reflect those beliefs. For instance, all the doors in Hill House are hung crookedly...so that -- after a time -- they slam shut, apparently of their own volition. And all the angles inside the house are off-center a bit....just like the characters in the drama. The house --as Markway reminds us -- "does have its oddities." Just like every team member...

In such a strange environment -- with four such anarchistic individuals in close-quarters -- the probe into the unknown is tainted by the frailties of the individual personalities. We can't rule out that one or all of the explorers is perpetrating some kind of hoax; or simply that some one's imagination has gotten out of control. Consider the moment in which Nell becomes convinced that someone is holding her hand in the dark. She believes it to be Theodora, but when the lights come up, Theodora is across the room, in her own bed. Wise's camera never leaves Nell's face during the "event." It stays on Nell, in extreme close-up throughout the purported "visitation", and thus we are left to wonder if she is hallucinating, or really countenancing something supernatural. If something were holding and crushing her hand...why don't we ever see it?

Similarly, on the night of the loud noises at their door; Theodora and Nell never actually see anything abnormal. And importantly, Luke and Markway are elsewhere in the house at the time...they could easily be responsible for the noises. Similarly, anyone could have written Nell's name on the wall. When the film's biggest scare arrives -- Mrs. Markway's (Lois Maxwell) sudden appearance from the attic -- even it is not ghostly in nature. She became lost in the attic and tried to escape...stunning Nell.

And finally, Nell's death could be suicide brought on by the fact that the attention seeker was being ostracized from the group, and on and on...

My argument vis-a-vis the original The Haunting is this: I believe Hill House is haunted and that the explorers experience paranormal or supernatural events there. However, the film retains an authentic sense of terror because Wise walks the line of ambiguity brilliantly. Nothing supernatural is ever truly seen, and we become perched on the edge of our seats by the things we don't see; but which we believe to exist. I'm not making the argument that showing ghosts in horror movies is always less effective than hiding them, only noting that The Haunting still scares -- 45 years after it was made -- because it exhibits this spine-tingling sense of uncertainty and ambiguity. We don't know what is making the horrible noise outside the bedroom; we don't know if that is a human face in the sculpture on the wall, or merely a trick of the light. We can't be certain if the door is bending because of a supernatural force...or someone leaning on the other side of it. But taken all together, these events are chilling and add up to something meancing. More so, they are chilling because we never get satisfactory answers about them.

Wise's exquisite camerawork in The Haunting generates genuine terror, but notice that the camera truly grows perturbed only when the dramatis personae have also grown perturbed or hysterical. Theodora and Nell are worked up to raging terror by the time Wise deploys that prowling, angling camera which circumscribes the perimeter of the bedroom door. We interpret this odd, angled movement as the search by something inimical -- on the other side of the door -- seeking an entry point. But we see nothing; and the camera's twisted perspective could simply be the perspective of two very frightened women Similarly, Nell's fainting spell on the veranda coincides with the camera lunge from the high tower; again as though something invisible is approaching...or attacking. Yet the sudden, alarming camera movement could be interpreted as a reflection of Nell's sudden, dangerous vertigo. Especially if we are to believe she is suicidal (a belief which also plays into the climax and the staircase set piece).

And by the time we see a Hill House door swell and retract (as if breathing by itself...), every character -- especially Markway -- is desperate and fearful. These apparent manifestations of the supernatural could be the manifestations of the characters' out of control hysteria and fear.

One of The Haunting's central set-pieces involves Nell and Markway's ascent up a rickety, vast spiral staircase. The staircase is loose from the wall (again, not a danger that is supernatural in origin). But the quest to reach the top metaphorically reflects the team's overall quest. Markway and his people are climbing the tallest mountain and seeking answers on the summit. But even they cannot reach Heaven for answers about life beyond death. And again, notice that when Nell and Markway do finally achieve the top of the spiral staircase, Nell is frightened out of her mind not by a ghost...but by another desperate human, Markway's wife. In other words, Nell has reached the pinnacle of Hill House -- climbed as far as she can possibly climb -- and the terrors/answers she gets are still of the human, not supernatural variety.

The Haunting succeeds as a great horror movie because there exists enough ambiguity in the camera-work, the characters, and in the script to support multiple interpretations. Either the house is haunted, or Nell is a very disturbed individual responsible for the so-called haunting, or all the characters are just "innocent and receptive" to their admittedly creepy environment. These interpretations compete for primacy in The Haunting, and that competition results in an incredibly active viewing experience; a high-level of engagement with the material. And that engagement leads to unbearable suspense...

Just Because You Can Do A Thing: Remaking and Unmaking The Haunting (1999)

Ambiguity was not in fashion in 1999 when Jan De Bont re-made The Haunting. Therefore, what remained unseen but detected in Wise's classy original film became seen....and predictable. Not just seen actually, but dramatized in full-color, in ample lighting, utilizing the latest in state-of-the-art computer generated special effects. Because of this see-it-all approach, the remake leaves itself only one possible interpretation: Hill House is haunted by a malevolent spirit who can re-shape reality to his liking.

You can almost detect how the makers of The Haunting (1999) were onto the kernel of something clever in reconceiving the film. They seized on the good idea that Hill House was an outward manifestation or reflection of Hugh Crain's twisted psyche. But they went too far. The filmmakers thus transformed Hill House into a bloated monstrosity with oversized rooms that might resemble a human rib-cage, or a bizarre drawing by H.R. Giger more than a real house. Again, you can understand this approach at the same time that you realize it just doesn't work. Houses -- even haunted houses -- aren't hatched or born out of twisted psyches. They are built and constructed plank-by-plank and it is simply impossible to believe that the out-of-proportion, bizarre Hill House of The Haunting (1999) was ever built by 19th century hands, using 19th century techniques and plans. Because of the house's egregious (though inventive) design, the film sacrifices some vital piece of believability. A house with a Godzilla-sized fireplace? With a hall of mirrors? With a virtual river inside one hallway?

Bottom line: If we can't believe in the house as a real, tangible place from human history; we don't believe in the story being told there, and the movie automatically fails to suspend our disbelief.

Another bad move in The Haunting grants the Crain-spirit seemingly invincible powers over flesh and blood, stone and mortar. The house repetitively grows appendage-like vines out of the walls and entraps human characters in them on a regular basis. Stone gargoyles come to life and attack people in broad daylight. Curtains dance with ghostly apparitions whose shapes we can see, process, and comprehend. The digital special effects are repeated so often and in such ample light that the "horror" imagery becomes commonplace instead of frightening. A flying gargoyle and ambulatory statue are things you can run and hide from, things you can strike with your fist or with a weapon. Contrast that kind of nemesis with the amorphous, unseen thing perhaps prowling in Wise's original. How could you escape an angry spirit that seemed to exist by its own set of "laws?"

The Haunting remake eschews ambiguity in other ways. We also see and detect here the all-too-human motives of Hill House's ghost, Hugh Crain. He's apparently enslaving all the children he used to exploit in life (just like Kathie Lee Gifford...) and this version of Eleanor (Lily Taylor) -- a surprise(!) descendant of Crain's second wife -- must free the children from his hellish grip. All is made right when Nell and the children ascend to Heaven and Crain passes through the "door of judgment" to Hell itself.

Again, there's nothing like taking uncertainty entirely out of the equation. In the original Haunting it wasn't even plain whether one ghost or multiple ghosts (or no ghosts...) were at work. The new Haunting provides us an "earthly" agenda for a specific ghost (enslavement of the children), a proper fate (punishment for bad deeds) and a reward for the righteous victor in the fight against him. De Bont's The Haunting takes the shivery indeterminism of Wise's classic and shelves it in favor of mind-numbing, imagination-crushing certitude.

No expense was spared to remake The Haunting in 1999, but the spine-tingling ambiguity and uncertainty of Wise's original were abandoned in favor of an onslaught of digital effects. This is a case where seeing is not believing; and where certainty crushes the mind's capacity to imagine the unseen. That's why the original The Haunting still "walks alone" as a classic.

The remake, in every sense of the word, is un-"Wise."

1 comment:

  1. What great timing you have, JKM! I went and saw this at a revival theatre last weekend. Wise's adaptation of one of my favorite haunted house tales (Richard Matheson's Hell House is the other) was simply wonderful. His way didn't need any of Jan De Bont's effects-ladened mess to tell an effective story and scare, and creep, his audience thoroughly out. Great job in comparing the two in this examination. Thanks for this, John.